If ever there was a time for UUs to be proactively involved in public education it’s NOW!

Public School
Photo by Ian McKenzie

Unitarian Universalists have the most academic education, second only to the cousins in the Hindu religious tradition.  We love questions, learning, searching. If we love our education so much, wouldn’t we want access to education for everyone as an expression of our Unitarian Universalism?

Trump’s appointment to the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos troubles me deeply. Public school, our country’s most important civic institution, will potentially be gutted, and not in favor of fairness and equality. Trump’s appointment is a call to action and service. What will you and your congregation or Covenanting Community do to protect public education?

  • Can you imagine if every UU congregation ran a member for the local school board as part of their mission?

  • Can you imagine congregations annually commissioning public school teachers and staff in a ceremony of celebration and gratitude?

  • Can you imagine scholarship program run by congregations to fund field trips and extracurricular opportunities as a way to support their local schools?

  • Can you imagine partnering with other groups to offer after-school enrichment programs?

I can imagine this and more.  I can imagine it because it’s part of our heritage.  Horace Mann (Unitarian) started the Common School Movement to ensure that basic education funded by local taxes was available to every child. The idea and movement of universal schooling spread across the new country.  Mann knew that political stability, basic civility, and social harmony are the basis for civilization and universal public schooling is the means to that advancement.

Horace Mann started the public schools, and it’s time we rose up to ensure their protection.

Anger Solidarity

A loud pounding interrupted the instructions for the learning assignment.  The class gave a collective sigh.  We knew what the sound was.  We heard it daily. When Benny’s frustration level piqued he clenched his jaw, broke his pencil and started kicking the nearest wall. I had marked him absent just a bit ago, but evidently he made it to school and now was in the front yard repeatedly kicking the porch of our portable classroom.

Benny was faced with some hefty decisions at age of 9.  He had just begun running drugs for his mother and older brother. And now his brother was offering him a chance to “get jumped in” to the gang that ran the reservation underground. Gang initiation usually started with the young ones out here.

His Individual Education Plan, required by the Special Education department, listed many challenges, one of them being suspected Fetal Alcohol Effects. Benny was developmentally delayed, but I suspected the constant barrage of anger is what really stunted his neurological growth.  The traveling school psychologist listed “Anger Disorder” in his folder.  I found this label odd. The anger didn’t seem to be unwarranted or based on disillusion.  I found little in his life that didn’t merit intense anger. The injustice was glaring.  Had I written the IEP, perhaps I would have written, “Reality Disordered, anger justified.”

The frail portable shook with every kick.  I had gone on giving instructions, but I could tell by the student’s wide eyes and glances toward Benny’s direction, that the learning moment was lost.

I stopped.  Three kicks passed.  A family picture on my desk tipped over.

“Wonderkids, sometimes we experience such pain, such anger, that we can’t keep it in and we can’t understand it and we can’t do it alone.  Benny is experiencing that kind of pain and anger.  He needs our help.  We are going to go outside and help him kick the porch until the anger is all kicked out.”

Everyone stood up and walked outside, single file. They joined Benny on the porch. Benny was too busy kicking to notice.  Then all the kids started kicking with him.  There were grunts and groans as our toes smacked solid wood.  Benny came out of his trance and blinked at me.  He looked around at his classmates who had stopped kicking to see if he was all right.

I put my arm around his shoulders. “Together we’re bigger than the anger, Benny.”

He nodded and started up the stairs to the classroom.  He immediately crawled under a table.  Pearl, one of his peers, brought a blanket over for him to curl up with.  We all took a deep breath and a prayerful moment of silence.  And then I went back to the board knowing that Benny would come out when he was ready and the assignment would be waiting for him.

Religious Educations knows that sometimes academic or planned curriculum needs to be put on hold so that life curriculum can be lived in its moment.

Warrior Boots

When I taught upper elementary school I had one particular student who stood out.  He had an incredible mind. Ezra scored high on analytical tests and had a large vocabulary.  He asked pointy questions that revealed his disillusionment of authority.  And he also became easily frustrated, called himself stupid, and cut into his skin with his pocketknife as punishment. Sometimes he projected the frustration on to people close by.  He got into fights and sent to the office on a regular basis.

Ezra was also curious about my peace sign.  I had an obnoxious, oversized peace sign charm woven into the laces of my high top Converse sneakers. My older brother gave it to me as a joke. Carl would roll his eyes every time I left for a protest march or ordered vegetarian or refused to shave my legs. He would shake his head and explain to me once again why I couldn’t save the world all at once – it has always been like this and will always be like this, so stop trying and enjoy it.  But at the same time, he would let me borrow his truck to haul street puppets for a demonstration or haul people in the Pride Parade.

Ezra wanted to know why I wore the peace symbol. Even though it came to me tongue in cheek, it had come to be a reminder for me to walk in peace. I gave Ezra writings by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi and Thich Nat Hahn.  Ezra read these books as quickly as I could bring them in, but pondered on how their lives would be different if they lived on a reservation with the highest poverty rate in the state and both their parents were drunk and unemployed and most of their classmates suffered from Fetal Alcohol Effects. I didn’t know how to respond.

I came into class on a Monday. The kids were gathered around Ezra.  They were admiring his boots.  He had gotten blood on them over the weekend. Shot a deer.  His father and uncles had taken Ezra out for his first hunt.  While gutting it he got blood all over himself.  It was a rite of passage.  He recounted the details with his classmates with his chest puffed out and his chin held high.

Ezra sat next to me in class.  He fiddled with peace sign on my shoes, and I eyed the dark brown splotches on his boots.

“How about we switch for a day?” he asked, still touching the peace sign.

“What?”

Ezra grinned with a twinkle in his eye, clearly hatching a plan.  “You wear my boots for the day and I’ll wear your peace shoes.”  Ezra was tall for his age. He had huge feet, which prophesied an even taller future.

I hesitated.

“Please.  I’ll take very good care of your shoes.” Looking up, eye to eye for the first time.

“Okay. But like you said, these are peace shoes.  You can’t hurt yourself or hit other people while you’re wearing them.”

He held up two fingers ‘on my honor.’  He quickly unlaced his boots to make the switch.  Our feet were almost the same size.

“Okay,  I promise to be a peacenik for the day. But those are hunter shoes you’re wearing. You have to walk like a warrior today.” And then Ezra ran off in my Converse.

Throughout the day I looked down to see the dried blood and wondered what it would be like to shoot a dear.  What it would be like to be so intelligent, but have no answers for the poverty, oppression, alcoholism, and slow genocide around? To be so fearful of the anger locked up inside that it started eating away at hope? What would it be like to have a family invested in my coming of age and ritualize it dramatically? What would it be like to depend on the shooting of that deer for the food on my table? What would it be like to be so forgotten as a people that my education didn’t matter on one hand, and then could be the only equalizer that could lift me up from the stranglehold of oppression?

With each step I let these questions sink into my flesh and bones. I didn’t play kickball with the kids that day.  I stood quietly and intentionally noticed the wind on my face.  I heard a basketball echo on the court and saw Ezra shooting hoops by himself.

At lunch when I was handed a plate without meat I asked for a regular lunch.  Doris was surprised.  So was I. She shrugged and added a healthy dose of hamburger gravy to my mashed potatoes. I ate it.  It was good.

That day Ezra didn’t get into one fight. He didn’t growl or yell in anger. He didn’t hurt himself.  As we were waiting for his school bus we each untied our laces and exchanged shoes.

“How did it feel to be a peacenik for the day?”

“Not bad.  I passed… How did it feel to be a warrior?”

Our eyes locked on the others. And we were silent for many moments as the other kids ran for their bus with the typical frenzy and excitement of the final bell oblivious to the sacred turn in their midst.

“I walked taller.”  I said.

“Me, too.” said Ezra.

That day my understanding of our interconnectedness expanded. There are many ways to talk in peace.  There are many ways to be a warrior.  And sometimes being a peace warrior is what is required.  My education had begun.

Religious Education sometimes requires changing shoes.

Active Volcanoes

The year I taught eighth grade could be classified as the Bumble Bee Year.  Just like bumble bees whose bodies defy rules of aerodynamics (I read that somewhere), we flew only because we didn’t know we couldn’t. When that class graduated into high school they each had officially more education than anyone in their immediate families.

Each morning started with reading the paper on the classroom couch, passing sections all around and sipping our hot beverage of choice.  When all were present and awake, we would start our morning check-in and read from Chicken Soup for the Soul.  And then we would dive into our busy day.

Instead of traditional recess, various leadership groups would attend to aspects of our school organization.  Each day had a different focus. On Monday the students gave recommendations to the school administration and board, tribal council, and cafeteria.  Tuesday was a community service group.  Wednesday was for our emerging sports program. Thursday was a school spirit group. But Friday’s music panel remained the most hotly attended and debated.

Friday’s group chose the music for our classroom, a very important part of teenage life.  Lyrics would be spread out on the table and both the words and overall message scrutinized for integrity and appropriateness.  Those songs that upheld the mission and values of the school and classroom were passed on and plugged into the classroom stereo at appropriate times.

We listened to jazz and swing and pop music. I could see the blossoming of lawyers in Nathan as he argued lyrics from Marilyn Manson and Malikah as she defended Tu Pac. The students made the decision that they wanted to be inclusive, so Plains Pow Wow drumming was welcome, but the homemade bootlegs of northwest drumming was clearly preferred. There was one group that we almost unanimously liked, Presidents of the United States of America. They are a local, Seattle band with clever lyrics and contagious beats.

I used PUSA’s lyrics for language arts writing assignments.  Once we each rewrote the words to Peaches. Kitty was allowed, but with the requirement that profanities were manually bleeped out. Boll Weevil became classroom code for anyone who preferred to sit in his or her house and watch TV all day.  (And yes, I hope I’ve piqued your curiosity to check out the Presidents.)

Fast forward to Spring. We ditched the leadership groups for a month to focus on planning a class trip to the Sante Fe, New Mexico. There was a national science fair sponsored by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society in Sante Fe, and we were determined to go.  The requirements were that we would raise the money for the hotel and plain tickets and that each student must complete their own science fair project.

None of us (including me) had ever done a science project.  None of the students had ever been on a plane.  The students organized themselves so they each had a task. Ginger made sure everyone applied properly for the science project Courtney secured the plane tickets.  Nathan arranged for the hotel.  Louie, Frankie, and Malika poured over the tourist information they had sent away for and created a site-seeing schedule for us. Val contacted a distant family member from one of the Pueblos to tell them we were coming to visit.

When the letter came that none of our science project entries were accepted, it didn’t phase our traveling planning a bit.  Okay, maybe a bit, but our focus was finely tuned to our trip to Sante Fe. We were going.

We held our own science fair for the school and community.  The younger students filed through the table displays set up in the cafeteria. Frankie studied Ph balances of various liquids he found around the school.  Malika created a display on the effects of alcohol on the brain. Nathan’s study involved the physics of basketball.  One of the displays on the freezing point of different liquids melted into puddles.  Courtney charmed the younger ones with the science of bubbles.  Louie stood by his display with such pride ready to field questions. His was on Mt. Rainier.  He didn’t do an experiment but rather merged the scientific information of the volcano with the traditional terms and history.  The elders doted on his work and his family was proud.  It was a good celebration.

Fast forward to the plane trip. I was forever counting students afraid of leaving someone behind in the airport bustle. But we made it on the plane.  As we were walking up the aisle to our seats Nathan and I stopped in our tracks.

“Dude.” Nathan whispered.  “Is that?…”

I recognized Jason Finn’s bald head and boyish smirk immediately.  Standing before us in the middle of the airplane was the Presidents of the United States of America.  We found our assigned seats and then proceeded to peek and whisper.  I tried to nudge the students to introduce themselves, but didn’t succeed.

Finally, I went up to the foursome with my hand extended.  “Are you the Presidents of the United Stated of America?  I’m a teacher and these are my students.  We listen to your music all the time in class.  We just may be your biggest fans.”

Hearing that Chris Ballew chuckled, “Dude!” and gave me a high five.  We gathered for a group picture and I made introductions. I don’t know who enjoyed it more, the fans or the rock stars.

As the flight attendants started going through the aisle to settle us in, I pulled at the sleeve of  Jason Finn.  “Mr. Finn, the plane is about to pass Mt. Rainier and we have on this flight an expert on volcanoes.  His name is Louie.  He’s a special student.  It would mean a lot…”  I didn’t need to finish the sentence. Jason flashed a big smile and headed for the seat next to Louie.

“Are you Louie, the expert on volcanoes?  I understand we’ll be passing Mt. Rainier.”

Louie paused and looked at Jason. Then he took a deep breath, puffing himself up, trying to look important.  “Why yes I am.  A lot of people think Mt. Rainier is just a mountain, but it’s actually a volcano.  And Mt. Rainier is not her real name…”

I watched these two with their heads together, looking and pointing out the window.  We hadn’t landed in Sante Fe yet, but mission accomplished. Louie never asked me again, “When are we ever going to use this in the real world?”

Religious Education happens when we connect to people and things larger than ourselves and fly against all odds.